Review by Brian Bayer-Larson and Abram K-J
The gap between the last two Innocence Mission albums was five years. Now, a mere three years after releasing Hello I Feel the Same (reviewed here), The Innocence Mission has put out Sun on the Square (Badman Recording Co).
The album begins with two measures of a nylon string guitar arpeggiating a major chord, which quickly turns minor as the vocals enter, instantly evoking a yearning for connection. This first track, “Records from Your Room,” uses piano sparingly and gorgeously. The haunting high-register melody perfectly compliments the lyrics: “I meet you there out in the air // I’m listening.” It’s a compelling way to link this album to ones before it, setting the stage for something new but familiar.
The second track, “Green Bus,” offers an exquisite interplay of guitars—soft and understated, but precise and tight. “I cannot find a thing beautiful enough for you again,” Peris sings. The song’s strings are beautiful, expressing more ineffable longing.
In “Look Out From Your Window” (featuring a Peris kid on viola!) Peris still wants to listen: “All I cannot say I hope you know // All you cannot say I hope I can hear.” There is a theme of disconnect mingled with hope, acknowledging the reality that we cannot achieve ultimate communion with one another, even asbut that we hold out hope that one day we will. It is on this track that there is (at last!) some percussion.
“Shadow of the Pines” is an instant classic, and easily a top 10 Innocence Mission song. The muted piano is as if they decided to use toy instruments and coaxed all the beauty they could out them. The song is like stepping out of the Metro in Paris on a spring afternoon, encountering a fantasy made real. The instrumental closing of the track gives the listener layers of melodic, moving riffs, which—were this any other band—could have built for another five minutes. (The song is a modest 4:01.)
The spare use of electric guitar on “Buildings in Flower” is a nice touch. Don Peris’s guitar is tastefully employed and never over-shimmery (if that’s even possible!). More drums! (But only for the last quarter of the song.) If “And it’s hard to know, now, where we should go” is the call, the response (in question form) is, “Will the lifting of a window let the Spirit in, and then we begin to vividly live?”
The sixth and title track, “Sun on the Square” is probably the most complex song on the album and maybe one of their most ambitious compositions ever. Loads of string swells as the rhythmic song goes on, which is a great sound for the band. “Let there be more kindness in the world,” Peris sings.
If the next track “Light of Winter” sounds familiar, it’s because a previous version (called “From the Trains”) appeared on a sweet EP called “the snow on pi day.” It could be a Radiohead song. The first version—which we like a little better—had a little more backbone to it—bass and drums where there is piano now. The songs are different enough that renaming it made sense. The new version is still great. The theme of light–and seeing it–continues.
Track 8, “Star of Land and Sea,” is practically brutal in its child-like expression of hope in a dark world. There are echoes of the same two-note, high-pitched guitar riff from the previous track, which ties them together nicely.
The second to last song is “An Idea of Canoeing,” the chords and mood of which are reminiscent of Lakes of Canada. Where else are you going to find a melodica? More wondering: “Will I cross the street to you / in the traffic breaks / in the light of this / in the light of this love / here and now?”
“Galvanic” is a nice way to end the album. She sings in hope, “I believe we are going to see, things will come right this time.”
Overall, this is a very good album (can the band create otherwise?) with a lot to dig into, both lyrically and aurally. The band seemed to write and record this album with a soft touch, not risking too much. But you’ll only find gratitude here for the ways this record returns to the lush notes and tones of My Room in the Trees and Befriended.
As with all their albums there is an undeniable authenticity that comes through in their music. Amazingly, the band’s songs could produce the same emotional response in the listener, whether or not they produce them with multiple instruments. Karen’s voice and heart-rending lyrics come through with every composition. Also amazing is her ability to write so skillfully (and for such a long time now) about such universally human themes as loneliness, disconnect, hope, light, and vision. The hope is uniquely Christian, or at least one that looks up. It’s this—and the unique and always moving music—that keeps us coming back to them.
Thanks to Badman for early access to the album so we could review it.